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First Fiction

The Unprofessionals A Novel Julie Hecht Alfred A. Knopf: 244 pp., $23.95

October 19, 2003|Mark Rozzo

Julie Hecht is an O. Henry Prize-winning short story writer and the author of the oddball nonfiction masterpiece "Was This Man a Genius?" about the late comedian Andy Kaufman. It's a stretch to compare her razorlike prose to Kaufman's tweaked flirtations with the outer limits of comedy. Yet as artists they're both fearless, if somewhat nerve-wracked, travelers to the most dangerous edges of their respective crafts.

"The Unprofessionals," Hecht's brilliant and long-awaited first novel, can be as disconcertingly in-your-face, and as absurdly maudlin, as the sight of Kaufman prancing around a wrestling ring in his long johns. Its nameless narrator -- an anxiety-ridden, self-help-immersed photographer who has endless phone conversations with a young drug addict -- feels continually thrown face first into life's turnbuckles. By her own bruised estimation, she's "at the brink of being seriously over forty-nine" and drifting "without a soul." She calls herself "the walking dead" and, in signature Hecht fashion, tosses out explosive self-assessments the way a drunk might lob a highball glass across a room: "I felt my entire being to be nothing more than a flattened-out spoonful of batter to be flipped over to the other side." This is during a routine visit to the electrologist; everything, it seems, is too much for her.

But what really gets her goat is modern life, particularly the decades of the '80s and '90s, which are responsible for the ruination of everything. She lives on Nantucket (an island, appropriately), where she's become "an eyesore amidst the crowds whose place of spiritual origin was W magazine." She inveighs against the Spanish-speakers now working the checkout lines, about not being able to get personalized service at T.J. Maxx and about the present "era of turbaned [taxi] drivers and the increasing evidence of their lowering personal hygiene." She exists in an enervated state of "truthful emptiness," fussing about her dietary needs and her yoga ball, and skittishly reciting -- with a weird mixture of credulousness and disdain -- the wisdom of Dr. Andrew Weil and David Letterman. Her husband, meanwhile, is a shadow, cropping up now and again, only to be dismissed as "non-human."

The only connection Hecht allows her to maintain -- other than to her own washed-out narcissism -- is to the college-age kid she calls "my friend the boy." He's the son of a surgeon acquaintance and his wife, who have spent the previous decades in Manhattan and Beverly Hills. She's watched him grow up from watchful child to cranky adolescent and on to the brink of adulthood.

Or, rather, she's been party to an edited version of his coming of age: The two of them share all-night telephone calls in which the boy offers his own tart apercus, deriding those aging hippie dudes who wear ponytails, complaining about his distant parents and bemoaning his slacker contemporaries' lack of appreciation for Mel Torme. He adores Turnbull and Asser shirts, and his sartorial sense, an overcompensating parody of 1950s country club Republicanism, leads her to wonder if he might, in fact, be secretly gay. He too believes "the whole world is ruined." And love is only so much bunk: "Most couples' relationships are based on mutual lack of self-esteem and pity," he tells her, in that all-knowing way that the young and the clueless have.

Together they chatter on about shrinks and art, insecurity and aspiration, and the merits of assorted pharmaceuticals from Xanax to Klonopin ("psycho medication"). The boy, it turns out, is a substance connoisseur, and their ongoing intergenerational derision fest becomes increasingly bizarre -- and tender -- when it's revealed that he's often shooting heroin on his end of the line. What finally emerges is a bracing tale of two addicts -- an all-too-intelligent middle-aged woman stuck on her own misery and an uppity kid descending into a deadly spiral of high-end rehabs and terminal backsliding.

Hecht writes as if she's propelled by barely suppressed rage, making "The Unprofessionals," for all its dourness, a jolting portrait of dismay, hopelessness and self-obsession. It's also a corrosive sendup of the way we live now, spun out by a modern loner who happens to be every bit as distressing as the benighted, T-shirt-wearing masses she rails against.

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